COMPARO: 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth vs 2017 Mazda MX-5

Fiat 124 Spider Abarth
By Shari Prymak

The Mazda MX-5 has long been considered to be one of the best pure two-seater sports car in the world. There’s no secret to its formula. It’s just a small, simple, lightweight roadster. For a large auto manufacturer, it should theoretically be as easy to make as scrambled eggs. And yet, not a single competitor has managed to replicate its magic. As futile as it may seem, Fiat has taken on the challenge of concocting their own little roadster, and the result is the 124 Spider. In a world becoming increasingly dominated by bland crossovers, one more rear-wheel drive sports car can only be a good thing.

Rather than attempt to go it alone, Fiat has cleverly chosen to partner with Mazda and build the Spider alongside the MX-5 in their Hiroshima plant in Japan. Although it shares its basic structure and much of the interior with the MX-5, the Spider gets its own unique sheet metal, a 1.4L turbocharged engine, retuned suspension, and a few other small touches to differentiate it from its Japanese sibling. Sitting alongside one another, it would take a keen eye to spot that these two share a common bloodline.

Fiat 124 Spider Abarth

Though different in appearance, Fiat has kept the fundamentals of the MX-5 intact. The Abarth model I tested is the most performance-oriented of the lineup, and includes goodies such as a limited-slip differential, Bilstein sport suspension, a sport exhaust system with quad tailpipes, and a number of cosmetic tweaks. The result is that it’s just as fun to toss around as its MX-5 sibling. Thanks largely to a small, lightweight, rear-drive chassis, it dances around corners with the agility and enthusiasm of a hyperactive puppy dog. The ride is a bit fiddly, but those looking for comfort over handling can take a look at the Lusso or Classica trims, which have a less aggressive suspension tune.

With its chunky overhangs and guppy-like face, the Fiat isn’t exactly the most convincing example of Italian beauty. The Abarth treatment though helps add a good dose of flair and excitement. The aero bits and quad exhaust tips look aggressive and the interior details such as the red-faced tachometer and optimistic 270km/hr speedometer are nice touches. The available hand-painted matte black hood and trunklid are a super cool option as well. The MX-5, by comparison, is more clean-looking with sharp bodywork that wraps tightly around the innards. It’s not as muscular or shouty as the Abarth, but it has a simple, sporty elegance to it that should age well over time.

Fiat 124 Spider Abarth

As previously mentioned, the 124 Spider trades the MX-5’s naturally-aspirated 2.0L engine for a 1.4L turbo that, in the Abarth version, produces 164 horsepower and 184lb-ft of torque. It’s a bit laggy on the low end, but wakes up quite a bit when you rev it up to the mid-upper rpm range, which is a joy to do, thanks to the slick 6-speed manual gearbox that comes as standard equipment. Aside from a more linear power delivery, my only other wish is for a more exciting exhaust note. The stock Abarth system is fine, but I can’t help but feel that the available Mopar exhaust system would add just a bit more zing to match the flashy exterior.

There’s no question that the 124 Spider is a thoroughly enjoyable roadster. And with a starting MSRP of $30,995, or $37,995 in Abarth trim, there’s not much of a premium to go Italian when compared to the Mazda. Even so, I’m not convinced that MX-5 owners will be rushing to their nearest Fiat dealers to trade in their key fobs.

Fiat 124 Spider Abarth

The issue for me is that every change made to the MX-5 to make the 124 Spider has ever so slightly tarnished its purity. Part of what makes the MX-5 so special and loved by many is its simplicity and fanatical focus on the bare essentials of what make driving so pleasurable. The bulked-up front and rear ends, the added weight, the unnecessary Sport Mode button, and a turbocharged engine that trades simplicity for complexity in exchange for little benefit. All of these things chip away at the MX-5’s unrivalled brilliance and purity. The 124 Spider is trying to reinvent the wheel, and it’s just not necessary.

It may sound as though I’m having a downer on the Spider, which I’m really not. I couldn’t be more excited to be driving a small, rear-wheel drive roadster that’s Italian, even if it’s not convincing so in every respect. I just wish Fiat had done more to differentiate the 124 Spider from the MX-5, even in this Abarth version. Perhaps I’d feel differently if it were fitted with a few tastier Mopar accessories and performance bits. The visual drama is certainly there. And I admire it for its extra flair and uniqueness. As it sits though, the purer driving experience and back-to-basics approach of the MX-5 just speak to me more. I’m thrilled that the 124 Spider exists, and I’m sure that it will find a loyal following, but fixing what ain’t broken is no easy task.